LIST CANDIDATE: HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joseph Kaufmann, Beverly Hope Atkinson

PLOT: The life of an unemployed underground cartoonist who lives with his shrewish mother and mobbed-up dad and lusts after a saucy Nubian bartender, laid down in a mixture of animation and live action.

Still from Heavy Traffic (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: There’s not much of a story, and what plot there is turns needlessly nasty, but as a series of visual experiments Heavy Traffic is a success. Underground animator Ralph Bakshi is an important and very odd innovator with a cult following, and at least one of his films probably should make the List—is this semi-autobiographical tale the chosen one?

COMMENTS: With its brutal violence, casual sex, and animated floppy bits, today we would call Heavy Traffic “edgy” and reward it with a post-midnight slot on the Cartoon Network. But in 1973, this seamy peep-show tour of 1970s Manhattan was scandalous, nearly obscene stuff (Variety‘s dismissive review called it “a blatant example of hardcore pornography.”) Ralph Bakshi’s underground comic on film is emphatically not hardcore pornography; the moral tone is a lot lower and more misogynistic than Deep Throat. Traffic is more like a Tijuana Bible animated by the team behind “Fat Albert” while they passed around doobies. The story begins in live action as a young man plays a pinball machine; we then see his reflections and fantasies about his real life portrayed in grotesque cartoon form. Dad is a low-level Italian gangster out to bust the waterfront unions; Mom is a Jewish housewife whose only pleasures in life are feeding her son and clunking her philandering husband on the head with a frying pan. Young Michael Corleone (yes, the protagonist is named Michael Corleone) attempts to escape the agitation of his home life by drawing, but the world outside his window is hardly any better than the bedlam in his apartment. The local gang of greasy toughs tries to get him to lose his virginity with the neighborhood slut, but he accidentally knocks her off the rooftop. “She had it comin’,” he quips, which inspires the goombahs who put him up to it into frenzy of violent hilarity that ends with them beating each other bloody with chains and knives. That’s okay, because Michael really has the hots for Carole, a foxy black bartender in a halter top and low-slung bell bottoms. When she loses her job halfway through the movie, a plot finally develops as Michael works up the courage to offer to let her share his bedroom, a plan his racist dad doesn’t much like. The interracial couple strikes out together to make it in the big city, but when Michael fails to sell his blasphemous comic about a post-apocalyptic world of garbage worshipers, they turn to tricks to make ends meet. Carole lures johns into a hotel room and a suddenly vicious Michael caves their heads in with a lead pipe. Michael starts as a good kid, but only out of timidness; in his own fantasies, he corrupts himself. The ending is downbeat and jaded, but there’s a hopeful live-action coda that also suggests that the real city is almost as weird as Michael’s imaginary metropolis. With its multi-ethnic, grossly caricatured cavalcade of pimps, hos, burnouts, gangsters, transvestites, and amputee bouncers, New York City circa 1973 is the most fully-rounded character in Heavy Traffic; but it’s the movie’s visual invention that’s the star. Colorful cartoons are layered on top of footage of the real city in all its grungy greyness, while the film stock is often tinted, solarized, or otherwise transformed. The drawings are Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoon quality, but are inventively grotesque and sometimes even surreal (as when Jesus hops by on a cross to rat out Michael’s dad to a bullet ridden Godfather who’s just finished slurping a bowl of pasta peppered with tiny people). Devoted more to alienating bluenoses and earning its X rating by any means possible than to character development, Heavy Traffic may not be a deep and thoughtful movie, and it may not be the feel-good hit of 1973, but it is an utterly unique, nasty vision that is occasionally capable of astounding you with its excesses.

Bakshi had pitched the idea for Heavy Traffic to producer Steve Krantz, but the idea was considered  uncommercial. After Bakshi’s had a hit with the 1972 X-rated animated feature Fritz the Cat, Traffic got the green light. Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-ray earlier this year, although the release contained no special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bakshi’s style is completely over the top here, he’s running full steam ahead into material so surreal and so mind bendingly bizarre that you can’t help but get pulled in.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (Blu-ray)

One thought on “LIST CANDIDATE: HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973)”

  1. Personally, I’d advocate Coonskin and Wizards as the Ralph Bakshi films to beat in terms of madcap lunacy and mind-altering visuals.
    I feel a lot of the times that Ralph is criminally marginalized by critics as his role as an animator; the main reason they state in their criticism, even more than perhaps character development and tastelessness, is that of weirdness. Which I think is a shame. Bakshi helped inspire a generation of alternative, ‘weirdo’ animators, and shows like Ren and Stimpy, Beavis and Butthead, and other now cultural icons probably wouldn’t even of been given the room for consideration if it wasn’t for Bakshi’s noodling in streetwise, transgressive cartoonishness.
    Interesting thought: It would actually be a pretty splendid idea if [adult swim] ran a Ralph Bakshi retrospective some day as a special premiere. It would probably help introduce a lot of younger viewers(stoners, included) to his work, and perhaps even more greatly accepted. Just a thought.

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